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The Lesson of Creative Coverage

September 9, 2012

Depending on where, how or if you learnt your film and video trade, the word “coverage” is either a mantra to be chanted at all times or a boring, uninspired term on a par with talking insurance premiums (no disrespect to anyone who works in the insurance trade, but by fuck is your world dull!). For those who are not au fait with filmmaking terminology- and why the hell are you reading this blog?- “coverage” is a way of shooting scenes that allows for choices in the edit. The standard “Hollywood” approach for a two character dialogue is the five shot master style- a wide master, two over-the-shoulder close-up reverses and two big close-up singles.

(If the previous terms meant nothing to you, you’re either a curious blog-reader lost in a strange area of interest or a maverick filmmaker who calls his shots whatever the fuck he wants to- and if the latter, I salute you because you’re likely going to get further in this game than me by being an arrogant wunderkind!) The five shot master style looks a little like this:

But while it gives you nice, easily-cuttable-between-each-other shots that “cover” the whole scene, coverage isn’t sexy. It’s like a Flemish bond in bricklaying- its the common foundation of the whole skillset but it’s not creative, exciting or flamboyant. It gets the job done.

For most directors and DoPs, it’s always more interesting to use creative masters such as dolly moves or motivated tracks and pans or add a variation to the standard formula with either handheld, focus pulling or push-in/pull-backs… Sadly though, these sorts of shots take time- particularly dolly shots- because of the extra set-up for the grip gear, the knock-on effect on lighting and sound and the level of rehearsal needed. A director on a budget with a tight schedule has to weigh up whether it’s worth doing a dramatic master and possibly having to ditch the standard singles etc or sticking with the safety of the coverage and running the risk of having something as cinematically exciting as a rich tea biscuit.

I suffer from this scenario all the time.

On every shoot in fact.

I always have a tight schedule and a low budget so I’m always torn between shooting something with creative merit that I can be proud of and shooting stuff that stands a chance of being edited properly. As is predictable, I try to achieve both and frequently wind up with a real mix of scenes. Some with dramatically motivated shots and compositions, some that cut together well and some that fail somewhat on both counts.

For instance on Jason’s Persona, as mentioned previously on this blog, we had 18 scenes to shoot in three days. Or, as it panned out due to actors’ and locations’ availability, 18 scenes in one whole and two half-days. Which meant that we wouldn’t have the time to shoot the standard minimum five setups per scene (the vast majority of them were two-handers). In order to cut down on our time, we stripped some scenes down to a single set of reverses- a close up or over-the-shoulder for each character. Which, while serviceable and allows for a little flexibility in editing for timing and pauses, lacks any variety or emphasis. So much so that since I’ve been editing it these last few weeks, I have started to regret some of those non-coverage decisions. The same thing happened with the previous story, Eliza’s Persona, although in that case it was usually a no-coverage crafted master shot affair.

A dolly shot set-up from Jason’s Persona

And so, I have come up with a couple of rules (that I will no doubt forget when I next arrive on set) that hopefully should give me more coverage options, regardless of how dull/cinematic my approach is.

1) Shoot an interesting opener. This could be an establishing shot of the location, a miscellaneous cutaway or an insert of something in the scene- like a glass on the table of a pub scene. All this saves you having to open the scene with the standard wide or a close up.

2) If you want to open with the wide or the close up, is there a way to move into it? So dolly in to the final framing, pan up from the book the character’s reading or focus pull from an informative piece of production design. it might take a little longer than a static shot, but it’ll be a bit more cinematic.

3) Shoot inserts and cutaways. If the characters’ blocking includes using props, shoot inserts of the props being picked up/used/put down etc. This can be used to add emphasis to those actions, cover dodgy edit points and line crossings or they can be used as openers or enders for the scene.

4) Over the Shoulders are a favourite pattern because they add depth to the frame- put a long-ish lens on there and it’ll look great- but they are a continuity problem if performances don’t match with the reverse. Hence close-ups in the classic coverage. If you can’t shoot anything else, get the close-ups. That’s where the drama is after all.

5) Don’t forget sound. Remember to get room tone and any natural sounds like chairs being pulled out, glasses being put down etc. If an annoying background sound is present on some takes- fridges, air-con…- make sure you get a track of that too.

The Persona shoots have been fast, condensed, cheap and full of scheduling obstacles- like filming different actors’ close-ups in a single scene at different times because of their availability or having to film day for night and night for day. By working on these shoots I’ve learnt a few lessons I might otherwise have missed (and that some of my fellow directors have not learnt at all). Whether these lessons will prove useful or detrimental is unclear, but the more varied experiences you have, the more likely you are to learn something that will later prove useful and possibly save a future project where it might otherwise fall apart around your ears

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2 comments

  1. […] the one thing that’s very hard to get right or make interesting- dialogue scenes. I’ve mentioned it before, but I struggle with these a lot- making a two person page of dialogue come alive visually is […]


  2. […] a stylist/personal trainer or just being Adam Sandler). I talked about coverage before… ooh, ages ago… but if you don’t know what it is (and shame on you, this being a filmmaking/directing […]



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